San Francisco’s Race to Zero Waste Has One Last Major Hurdle

We often hear about San Francisco’s success in waste management and recycling: how the city is a leader in this field, diverting 80% of its waste through reusing, recycling, and composting. This diversion rate is impressive and superior to that of every other major city, which raises the question: How is San Francisco diverting 80% of its waste?

A Green City in a Green State

California’s strong commitment to sustainability is evidenced in its leadership in waste management. The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 required cities and counties to reduce, reuse, and recycle solid waste generated in the state to the maximum extent feasible before incineration or landfill disposal. In 2001, The California Integrated Waste Management Board mandated a specific target to divert 50% of waste from landfills.

San Francisco was a pioneer by both being one of the first cities to not only achieve this goal but to create local legislation setting a higher target and a deadline. In 2003, the San Francisco Commission on the Environment set the goal of zero waste by 2020. It was an ambitious goal, but many wondered if it would be achievable.

It appears the answer is yes. San Francisco reached a 75% diversion rate in 2010 and seems to be on the path to achieve its zero waste goal. Today, San Francisco claims an 80% diversion rate, an impressive figure, and superior to comparable cities worldwide.

Debate surrounded this figure and how it is calculated. To calculate it, San Francisco takes in account glass, paper, plastic, metal, organic material, and heavy construction material recycling. To some extent, this last category can explain why San Francisco’s diversion rate is so high. Indeed, in terms of tonnage, construction material diversion represents a large part of the total amount of waste diverted. Even if the recycling of heavy construction material is as important as any other type of recycling, factoring it in the diversion rate doesn’t give a fair assessment of San Franciscans’ efforts to recycle everyday.

Putting this debate aside: San Francisco was the first American city to set a zero waste goal and the first one to implement a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance using three different bins. The results are there: San Francisco did reduce the amount of waste going to landfill and recycling/composting is now part of San Franciscans’ regular routines.

Data source: CalRecycle

Siemens conducted a study in 2011, the results of which were published in its Green City Index, comparing 27 major U.S. and Canadian cities based their sustainability performance. San Francisco was named the greenest city in North America and ranked №1 in waste management.

Image source: Green City Index, Siemens

5 Weapons to Fight Against Waste

San Francisco’s success in recycling is explained by the following reasons:

Aggressive public policy

San Francisco was aggressive with public policy. The city was the first in the U.S. to prohibit the use of Styrofoam and polystyrene foam in food service (2006), require mandatory recycling for construction debris (2007), ban plastic bags in drugstores and supermarkets (2009), and to implement mandatory recycling and composting for resident and businesses (2009).

Strong public-private sector partnership

Recology, which handles waste services in San Francisco, has a no-bid, no-franchise-fee contract, which is based on a revenue model linked to collection fees. In 2012, a city-wide referendum was organized, and a proposition to break up the waste collection arrangement into five separate competitive bid contracts was proposed. But this measure was defeated with 77% of the voters against it. So despite the nature of Recology’s contract, this partnership seems to have been worked out pretty well; garbage collection rates that residents and businesses pay are consistent with other Bay Area cities, and landfill diversion has increased.

Efficient waste management system

San Francisco was the first U.S. city to implement a three-bin system: a green bin for compost, a blue one for recycling, and a black one for trash. Recology introduced this program, dubbed “The Fantastic Three,” in 1999, making composting part of San Franciscans’ daily lives.

Image credit: Recology

Another particularity of San Francisco’s waste management (which has spread elsewhere in California) is the implementation of a single stream for recycling. Paper, plastic, glass, and metal go to the same blue bin and are sorted later at the recycling center. This system is different from those in European cities, including Paris where glass is separated into unique bins. Using a single stream allows for less confusion and makes it easier for users to recycle.

Economic incentive

Residential customers who received weekly collection services are automatically charged $35.18 per month for the three 32-gallon bins. This price is on average as expensive as or cheaper than other Bay Area cities’ rates.

Data source: Individual city websites

Moreover, if a household switches from a 32-gallon trash bin to a smaller one, the monthly rate decreases. This system gives incentives to San Franciscans to recycle and compost more. However, if the 32-gallon recycling bin is too small and some waste is left beside the bin, the household will receive a fine. This also applies to recycling bins because it prevents users to throw every type of trash into the recycling bin.


Education is San Francisco’s main tool for reaching the zero waste goal. In order to change people’s behaviors, different programs were implemented.
First, vast door-to-door communication campaigns were developed to raise awareness of waste generation and educate citizens to recycle. Due to San Francisco’s population diversity, different languages were used, as well as pictograms. More specifically, an educational program was started within Chinese communities and businesses. Simultaneously, the development of farmers markets and urban gardens allowed San Franciscans to reconnect with local food and people that grow it.

Image credit: CUESA

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture operates the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and the Jack London Square Farmers Market, developing educational program for youth such as the Foodwise Kids program.

Moreover, SF Environment awards Zero Waste grants to non-profit organizations whose work helps toward reaching the city’s goals. Recology also developed an education program. An artist-in-residence program was implemented at the recycling center where artists use waste to build their art. The company also opens its doors to the public and organizes tours every month.

The Next Challenge: Waste Generation

However, diversion is only half of the problem: Waste reduction is also an integral part of big picture for achieving zero waste. Over the years, the city successfully reduced the amount of waste going to landfills, but during that period total waste generation increased.

In 2007, CalRecycle decided to use another measure to evaluate cities’ recycling performance: the per capita disposal measurement system. This measurement assesses how many pounds of waste per person is sent to landfills every day in San Francisco.

In 2015, San Francisco had a 3.7 per capita disposal rate, according to the CalRecycle system, which means that every day each San Franciscan sent an average of 3.7 pounds of waste to landfills (which is known as “non-diverted waste”). Based on data made available at, this number represents 20% of non-diverted waste claimed by the city. That means that each San Franciscan produces an average of 18.5 pounds of (diverted and non-diverted) waste every day and 3.3 tons of waste every year.

Thus, if San Francisco wants to be the first zero waste city, reducing this amount is its next fundamental challenge. The goal could be accomplished through some combination of innovative policies, stronger economical incentives, wider educational programs, and daily efforts from San Franciscans. The challenge also represents an opportunity for startups, which will also have a local role to play in paving the way for a zero waste reality.